Americans Have A Right To Know Who's Buying Their Politicians

| by Nik Bonopartis
A $100,000 bill.A $100,000 bill.

The question isn't "Should corporations with federal contracts have to disclose campaign gifts?" It's more like: "Why wasn't this done years ago?"

On Jan. 19, White House officials said that President Barack Obama is considering an executive order that would require corporations who do business with the government to disclose their political contributions, the New York Times reported. A move like that would deliver on one of the president's original campaign promises, and bring some much-needed transparency to so-called “dark money," the unlimited cash contributions corporations can donate to super PACs.

Of course, corporate leaders don't like the idea.

“The real goal of the disclosure proponents is to harass, intimidate and silence those with whom they disagree,” Blair Latoff Holmes, a spokeswoman for the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, told the Times. “We continue to believe that one’s political activities should play no role in whether or not you get or keep a federal contract, and we encourage the administration to leave this bad idea right where it is.”

But corporate interests are at odds with the general public and activists, who point out that hefty dark money donations can buy access and influence in Washington. Americans have a right to know who's buying their politicians.

Obama himself partakes in the practice: Donors who give more than $500,000 to Obama's Organizing for Action -- a non-profit set up to raise money for the president's policy goals -- are guaranteed quarterly meetings with the president, according to Moyers & Company, a website run by the well-known journalist and PBS political host Bill Moyers.

Since the Supreme Court's 2010 Citizens United decision, donations from corporations and the wealthy have skyrocketed. The decision effectively allowed unlimited donations -- as long as they were to a candidate's Super PAC and not directly to their campaign. The rule change has paved the way for the wealthy to increase their already outsize influence: Casino magnate Sheldon Adelson, for instance, has given $40 million to Super PACs since the 2010 ruling, looking to influence federal policy on his industry, The Center for Public Integrity noted. In the current election cycle, billionaires like former Oracle CEO Larry Ellison have also reportedly donated hefty sums to candidates on both sides of the aisle.

It's disingenuous to argue that massive donations to campaigns and Super PACs don't influence the policymaking of candidates who win office, and it makes no sense to allow unlimited donations through the Super PAC system while there are tight controls on donations made directly to political campaigns.

Most of all, there's the unwritten expectation of quid pro quo between candidates and their big-time donors, which diminishes the influence of American voters.

“Not only do ordinary citizens not have uniquely substantial power over policy decisions, they have little or no independent influence on policy at all,” the authors of the 2014 study, “Testing Theories of American Politics: Elites, Interest Groups, and Average Citizens,” wrote in Cambridge University's Perspectives On Politics.

The study specifically looked at how regular voters stack up against interest groups and elite donors when it comes to influencing American policy. The study found that voters have remarkably little impact on proposed policy changes. Without the support of interest groups and elite donors, policymakers only side with the public 18 percent of the time. By contrast, policy changes pushed by special interest groups and wealthy donors are more than two and a half times more likely to be enacted, the study found.

“The central point that emerges from our research is that economic elites and organized groups representing business interests have substantial independent impacts on U.S. government policy, while mass-based interest groups and average citizens have little or no independent influence,” the study's authors, political scientists Martin Gilens of Princeton and Benjamin Page of Northwestern, said.

The study generated hundreds of headlines in 2014, among them a BBC headline that summed up the common reaction, "Study: US is an oligarchy, not a democracy."

Proponents of change say they're hopeful Obama will use his executive power to finally shine some light on dark money donations, which would make companies and the wealthy think twice about gifting cash if their donations are subject to public scrutiny. Obama also made note of his intentions during his final State of the Union address.

“This issue of dealing with the systemic problem of money in politics is outrageously popular, and there’s no rational reason for the administration to be presiding over an approach of do-nothingness — it has been a huge disappointment,” Lisa Gilbert, the director of Public Citizen, told the Times. “We took this loud call to action in the State of the Union as a signal that they are changing course.”

Sources: New York Times, Perspectives On Politics: Cambridge University Press, The Center for Public Integrity, Media Matters, Moyers & Company / Photo source: Wikimedia Commons, Media Matters